Over the last week, approximately 50 students from the City University of New York and their supporters held a hunger strike to protest Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision to drop the Dream Act from the state budget.
On March 24, Cuomo issued a statement in Albany saying that, despite his support for it, the Dream Act would be left out of the budget, a move that signals yet another setback for advocates of the act, which allows undocumented immigrants, specifically high school graduates, to apply for state financial aid for college.
According to the New York Times, states like New York and New Jersey already offer in-state tuition rates for undocumented students. Had the Dream Act not hit an impasse with lawmakers, New York would have become the fifth state in the nation to allow high school graduates to apply for financial aid. California, Washington, New Mexico and Texas have already implemented the Dream Act.
While families that immigrated to the United States will be impacted the most, a group at the City University of New York called CUNY Dreamers was also heartbroken by the development. Without state financial aid, the students will have to rely on minimum wage salaries and, in some cases, will have to work more than one job, find small scholarships or switch their status to part-time in order to afford college tuition.
In protest of the decision, the students launched a week-long hunger strike that began on March 24 and ended on March 31.
Francis Madi, a former student at CUNY who also works for The New York Immigration Coalition, broke the week-long fast on Tuesday. She weighed in on the movement in a conversation with Women in the World.
Women in the World: Why did you break the strike?
Francis Madi: We broke the strike because it was Cesar Chavez’ birthday. Cesar Chavez fought for the rights of farm workers and also held many hunger strikes himself as a form of protest. We celebrated his legacy and “broke our first bread” together in his honor.
WITW: What’s different about New York versus other states where Dreamers are trying to get more recognition? Are things better or worse?
FM: It’s different in every state. There are Dreamers in other states who have it worse–some of them are not even able to attend college. We are very grateful about in-state tuition in New York. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to afford education here. I think that New York is a landmark for immigration, and it should set the example for the rest of the nation by passing the New York State Dream Act, allowing undocumented youth to get an education.
WITW: Can you tell me a little bit more about the overarching mission?
FM: The mission behind this hunger strike was to let our governor and legislators know the importance of passing the New York Dream Act. We also wanted to let undocumented students, the directly-affected individuals, take back some power and influence from the decisions being made about their lives, and in this case, their education. Every year, thousands of undocumented students graduate from high school, only to find out that they don’t have the resources to attend college. The Dream Act would allow these students to apply for state financial aid and attend college, therefore, increasing their chances of better economic prospects. Currently only 5 percent to 10 percent of undocumented students who graduate high school attend college and we need to change those numbers. Investing in the future of immigrant youth is investing in the economic prosperity of the state.
WITW: Can you highlight any support that you have received? Official channels?
FM: We have received so much support from community-based organizations, from Dreamer groups across the state, from educational institutions like CUNY, and from state elected officials such as [New York State] Senator [Jose] Peralta, who has always been in support of Dream as well as city council members. The press has also helped us shake things in Albany which is always good to keeping the momentum around this important issue.
WITW: As an advocate and activist at large, what example do you want to set for others?
FM: I think it is very important to remember that we may be undocumented students and individuals but we still have a voice that can influence policy, people and organizations and we managed to demonstrate that through this hunger strike. In the long run, we will continue to raise our immigrant communities to higher standards in the state of New York.